Critical Questions Remain Over Trump’s Missile Strikes and Syria Policy

Overall, Syrian democracy activists were ecstatic about President Donald Trump’s strikes on the base from which the Syrian regime launched its latest chemical attacks. After years of impunity, the Assad regime paid a price (however tiny) for their crimes against humanity. Western proponents of the responsibility to protect (R2P) doctrine, the enforcement of international law and norms, and more direct action to end the war, along with other critics of the Obama administration’s largely hands-off policy, have on average been more ambivalent. And rightfully so.

Many questions remain: Why did Trump strike—for his personal popularity, to be the anti-Obama, because he just now realized what Assad has been doing? If he cares about Syrian civilians, why does he show no compassion for the refugees fleeing Assad and ISIS?  What are his strategic goals (if they exist)—enforcing the norm against chemical weapon use, protecting innocent civilians, shifting the dynamics on the ground to increase the odds of a resolution to the conflict? Is this part of a larger strategy or an emotional response to the barbarism seen in images and videos of the attack (the CNN Effect, as political scientists call it)? Does Trump have the ability to effectively carry out any larger strategy given his general incompetence and unwillingness to study policy details? How will his relationship with Russia affect his response to their apparent complicity in these crimes? Does Trump now realize the role Assad has played and continues to play in strengthening extremists or not?

While many oppose a status quo that has left half a million people dead, displaced roughly half the country, and created a refugee crisis that threatens Western democracy, these questions and others make many who are open to intervention hesitate before endorsing the administration’s course of action or becoming optimistic about future Trump administration policies. The costs of further intervention (whatever form it could take) are real, as are the risks (as with non-intervention), particularly in the wake of the Russian intervention to save the regime from collapsing—a responsible analyst must not only consider what the best course of action should be, but the likelihood that an administration is inclined to, and capable of, carrying it out.

While a movement away from ‘America First’ populist nationalism is certainly encouraging, those who value the common good are right to remain skeptical of an administration that has yet to prove its intentions or efficacy. The lessons of Iraq should not lead to isolationism, but precisely this type of skepticism with a careful consideration of who is intervening and why. The President’s competence (or incompetence) can have a dramatic impact on the probability of success and potential costs of intervention. This must be considered in calculations of the justness and strategic prudence of particular courses of action. Can the wrong man carry out the right policy? Certainly, but with so many unanswered questions, caution is the most sensible response right now.

Here are a few articles on the chemical weapon attacks and reactions from those who have been critical of Western indifference to Assad’s mass murder:

‘My entire family’s gone’: Syrian man says 25 relatives died in strike by CNN: “Youssef arrived in his parents’ house to find his two brothers dead. Panicked, he rushed back to his home to check on his wife and babies. “There was foam on their mouths, there were convulsions. They had all been on the floor,” Youssef told CNN on Wednesday, sobbing. “My kids, Ahmad and Aya, and my wife… they were all martyred. “My entire family’s gone.””

Teen lost 19 family members in Syria chemical attack: ‘I saw the explosion’ by CNN: “In all, he said, 19 of his relatives were killed Tuesday morning. When Mazin said that devastating number, his voice cracked. He lost his struggle to maintain self-control. His face contorted, his red eyes filled with tears. He plopped down sobbing on the plastic chair in the hospital corridor. Mazin is only 13 years old. He is a child. And this is his world.”

Trump might be going to war. But he has no plans for establishing peace. by Ilan Goldenberg and Nicholas Heras: “Yet as analysts who have argued for greater U.S. military engagement to end the Syrian civil war, we find ourselves conflicted about the president’s decision: We fear there is simply no plan for what comes next. To succeed beyond Thursday’s limited strikes, American leaders must decide on a clear set of objectives, a realistic desired final outcome, a theory of the case for how to get there and a solid understanding of the risks. We see three potential options for how the president could move forward.”

What Effect Will Trump’s Airstrikes Really Have? By Daniel Byman: “If the strike does achieve the President’s objective and Asad no longer uses chemical weapons against his own people, that’s good news—but it is little consolation for the tens of thousands of Syrians who are likely to die in the coming months from regime barrel bombs or indiscriminate Russian airstrikes or to be tortured and killed in the dictator’s prisons.”

Syrian opposition leader: Trump has a chance to save Syria By Josh Rogin: “Short of that, the Syrian opposition is asking the Trump administration to use any new leverage it has to demand a nationwide ceasefire, to stop the killing of civilians by the Assad regime and press for international access to all besieged areas and the jails where Assad is holding thousands of civilians in custody. They also believe now is the time to push for a new political process to move Assad out of power.”

A Practical Guide for Avoiding Fallacies on Syria by Shadi Hamid: “It is abundantly clear that the Assad regime will not negotiate in good faith or make any significant concessions on its own. We’ve hoped for that since the earliest Arab League efforts in 2011. The credible threat of force (or its use) is the only thing that is likely to change Assad’s calculus. If his survival isn’t at stake, he has little reason to negotiate much of anything.”

This May Signal That the Free Ride for Mass Murder Is Over by Frederic Hof: “Bashar al-Assad’s political survival strategy of collective punishment and mass homicide is a gift that keeps on giving to ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other forms of violent, terrorist extremism.”

So Trump Attacked Assad. What Now? by Charles Lister: “Assad cannot and will never put Syria back together again, but partition is not an answer. Foreign intervention for rapid regime change promises only further chaos, but determined U.S. leadership backed up by the credible and now proven threat of force presents the best opportunity in years to strong-arm actors on the ground into a phase of meaningful de-escalation, out of which eventually, a durable negotiation process may result.”


Rep. Joe Kennedy: What Bible is Paul Ryan Reading?

In defending the disastrous new GOP proposal to replace the Affordable Care Act, Paul Ryan described it as an “act of mercy.” Congressman Joe Kennedy responded by challenging the understanding of scripture and mercy of the once enthusiastic Ayn Rand fanboy, who after one of his supposed conversions to Catholic social teaching still cautioned against “too much solidarity” in a ridiculous article at America:

There is no mercy in a system that makes healthcare a luxury. There is no mercy in a country that turns their back on those most in need of protection: the elderly, the poor, the sick, and the suffering. There is no mercy in a cold shoulder to the mentally ill…This is not an “act of mercy.” It is an act of malice.

Of course, if elected Democrats displayed a consistent commitment to this standard of mercy for all human persons, there is little chance that such an immoral, incoherent healthcare proposal would be up for debate.


Republicans Shouldn’t Take Prenatal Care Guarantees from Pregnant Women

Republican Congressman John Shimkus expressed opposition yesterday to the mandate in the Affordable Care Act that healthcare plans must cover prenatal care. He argued that men should not have to contribute to the healthcare of pregnant women and their unborn children. Instead, he expressed his support for Americans choosing health insurance plans where coverage is chosen a la carte.

There are a number of problems with this line of thinking. First, it’s detached from reality. That is not how the marketplace has worked or will work, as Congressman Michael Doyle helpfully pointed out. Second, it ignores the practical impact that this would have on the cost of health insurance plans that include prenatal care. It would certainly make it less affordable and thus inaccessible for pregnant women and their children. Combined with Paul Ryan’s seeming inability to understand how insurance works, it is clear that Republicans lack the minimal technical knowledge required to produce healthcare reform that is actually feasible in the real world, let alone a plan that is prudent and helpful.

The case for removing the prenatal care mandate is also deeply immoral. It reflects a market morality that places consumer choice above human dignity and the sanctity of human life. Every single person who is pro-life, including the Congressman, should reject this perverse ordering of values. Pope Francis directly challenged this mentality, saying, “Health is not a consumer good but a universal right, so access to health services cannot be a privilege.”

Against this libertarian mentality that is driven by extreme individualism, unlimited choice, and maximized autonomy, a Christian approach recognizes that we all (including men!) have a responsibility to support pregnant women and unborn children (among others). Recognizing this is integral to building a culture of life. This type of commitment to community and mutual responsibility is essential for achieving the common good.

Until Republicans’ leading policy wonk figures out how insurance works, those Republicans trying to replace the Affordable Care Act develop a minimal understanding of how obtaining health insurance works in reality, and the Republican party starts to show a little more respect for life rather than unfettered choice, the party’s effort to cut taxes for the wealthy by wrecking the Affordable Care Act should be strongly opposed by all.


Top 10 Reasons to Oppose Trump’s Refugee Ban

As President Trump tweaks his refugee ban in the hopes of it surviving legal challenges, here’s a reminder of the many reasons to oppose any refugee ban:

  1. It’s immoral and un-American. It violates Christian moral principles and turns away from the American aspiration of being the land of the free and the home of the brave. It contradicts the responsibilities toward refugees, migrants, and foreigners that are given to us in the Bible.
  2. It’s unnecessary. The vetting process is already rigorous.
  3. It’s motivated by xenophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry, and it violates religious freedom.
  4. Pope Francis is calling for the opposite approach.
  5. It violates pro-life principles, as Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark explains.
  6. ISIS loves it. It confirms their narrative of a war between the West and Islam. And it makes the US look weak and afraid.
  7. This should not be a partisan issue. There is a strong conservative case for welcoming refugees.
  8. It’s an alt-right scheme premised on changing demographics in the US, not protecting the American people (which is why so many counterterrorism and national security experts reject the ban).
  9. Catholics know the history of such bigotry and should be vigilant about confronting and opposing it.
  10. It’s legally dubious. Trump asked for a legal way to carry out his Muslim ban, a goal that isn’t legal. Given his intentions, it is not clear that even the revised ban is constitutional.

Meanwhile, Catholic leaders are already pushing back against the new executive order.

The USCCB (Bishop Joe Vásquez of Austin, Chair of the USCCB Committee on Migration) says:

The removal of one of the original seven predominantly Muslim countries temporarily barred from entering the United States is welcome, but we are disappointed that the revised order maintains the temporary shutdown of the U.S. refugee admissions program, continues the more than 60 percent reduction in the number of refugees who can be resettled into the United States this year, and still temporarily bars nationals from six predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States.

The U.S. Catholic Bishops have long recognized the importance of ensuring public safety and would welcome reasonable and necessary steps to accomplish that goal.

However, based on the knowledge that refugees are already subjected to the most vigorous vetting process of anyone who enters the United States, there is no merit to pausing the refugee resettlement program while considering further improvement to that vetting process.

Catholic Relief Services states:

Catholic Relief Services (CRS) opposes the new Executive Order on refugees, noting that while every Administration has an obligation to protect its citizens, the United States need not halt resettlement to undertake a security review.

“The fact is, refugees already undergo significant vetting – more than any other traveler to the United States,” said Bill O’Keefe, CRS’ Vice President for Advocacy…..

“By banning refugees and travel from Syria, Somalia, and Yemen, we are turning our backs on suffering people during their most difficult hours,” he said.

In Yemen, 17 million cannot adequately feed themselves.  More than 13.5 million Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance, in addition to the nearly 5 million refugees.  And drought in Somalia has left 6.2 million people in need.

“As the world’s most blessed nation, we should be doing more to provide assistance overseas and resettle the most vulnerable, not less.” O’Keefe said. “It is wrong, during this time of great need, to cut humanitarian assistance and reduce resettlement.

“Refugees are fleeing the same terrorism that we seek to protect ourselves from,” he said.  “By welcoming them, we show the world that we are an open, tolerant nation which seeks to protect the vulnerable.  That has always been America’s greatest strength.”

Catholic Charities says:

Today, Sister Donna Markham OP, PhD, president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA (CCUSA), expressed her profound concern over the new Presidential Executive Order, entitled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States.”

“At the heart of the work of Catholic Charities is the Gospel mandate to welcome the stranger and care for the most vulnerable among us,” said Sister Donna.  “Today’s executive order not only hinders that work, but also effectively abandons, for four months, the thousands of endangered refugees fleeing violence, starvation and persecution. It is deeply disturbing to know that the thousands of women, children and other persecuted individuals around the world will face a closed door rather than a helping hand from the United States,” Sister Donna continued.


Assad’s ‘Human Slaughterhouse’

Amnesty International has released a report on one site (Saydnaya prison) where top Syrian officials approved the torture and execution of thousands of Syrians. The Syrian Grand Mufti’s complicity highlights the utter foolishness of those “pro-peace” Catholics that spread his propaganda about desiring peace in 2013, even though he had threatened the West with suicide bombings in 2011. Of course, many of these same individuals, including a considerable number of Catholic theologians, activists, and media figures, also spread Russia’s propaganda on Syria (Vladimir Putin’s New York Times op-ed, in which he pretended to care about international law, slandered the Syrian opposition to support his mass murdering ally, lied about who used chemical weapons, encouraged the US to withdraw from its global responsibilities, and lifted up the false hope of dialogue and diplomacy). Russia itself has also committed war crimes in Syria. Since it entered the conflict in Syria, Russia has killed more innocent civilians than ISIS.

The report highlights the cruelty of the Assad regime, the moral failure of the West and the Vatican, and the importance of having concrete knowledge of political issues before addressing them rather than recklessly spreading propaganda that aids mass murderers out of complete ignorance.


Stephen Colbert Offers Intellectual and Moral Clarity in Response to Trump

Stephen Colbert appears to have found his groove at the Late Show. In the video below, he tears apart Donald Trump’s unhinged press conference. While self-loathing progressives and mushy moderates worry that comedians mocking Trump’s flagrant ignorance and evisceration of democratic norms is somehow undermining their farcical, one-sided attempts at generating dialogue with people who defend the indefensible, Colbert is choosing to do his best to offer the intellectual and moral clarity that is needed at this moment in American history. He is behaving like a comedian, citizen, and patriot should—delivering laughs while defending factual reality and the highest American ideals. Instead of criticizing comedians who refuse to intentionally placate or indulge the willful ignorance of many, these critics should look in the mirror and ask themselves if they are doing their part to stand up for American democracy at this moment of maximum peril—or if they are too busy trying to show off their non-partisan or non-ideological “reasonableness” to do their duty.

Not just those who aspire to be good citizens, but those who aspire to be good Christians, should ask this question of themselves. Christianity is either radical or a bourgeois counterfeit. Where others are choosing silence, complacency, or outright complicity, Colbert is rising to the moment. Are you?


Pope Francis Challenges Profit-Obsessed Capitalism and Our Complacency

As a certain group of right-wing American Catholics continues to promote free market fundamentalism—sometimes very amiably with rhetorical commitments to a (diminished) social  safety net and maybe even with a nod to an increase in the earned income tax credit—Pope Francis has once again affirmed the Church’s fundamental opposition to this ideology (however cleverly marketed) and the idolatry that often drives it.

While right-wing defenders of libertarian economics should be deeply challenged by the pope’s call for an economy of communion (along with over a century and a quarter of formal Catholic teaching), those of us who actually value Church teaching and orthodoxy should also reflect upon our own biases and assumptions. A market mentality permeates much of American culture, including the thinking of many in the center and even on the left. I sincerely doubt that, given my American background, I am immune from certain biases that pull me from identifying the best path to integral human development, global economic justice, and the common good.

It is easy to cast stones at Catholics who (against Church teaching) believe that access to food or healthcare is a privilege to be earned, rather than a right. It is easy to cast stones at those who delude themselves into believing that the economic growth under China’s state capitalism shows the efficacy of free enterprise and small government, or that the Great Depression and Great Recession were caused primarily by excessive government intervention in otherwise virtuous markets, or any other delusions that ideologues cook up while promoting policies that create the throwaway culture. It is much harder to check one’s own assumptions and ensure that we too are not complicit in this culture or guilty of being capitalists first and Christians second.

Here are some highlights of Francis’ speech on Saturday that should challenge all Americans to reflect on what we are doing (or not doing) to build a more just socio-economic system that serves all:

  1. We cannot understand the new Kingdom offered by Jesus if we do not free ourselves of idols, of which money is one of the most powerful.
  2. When capitalism makes the seeking of profit its only purpose, it runs the risk of becoming an idolatrous framework, a form of worship.
  3. Tax avoidance and evasion which, before being illegal acts, are acts which deny the basic law of life: mutual care.
  4. The principal ethical dilemma of this capitalism is the creation of discarded people, then trying to hide them or make sure they are no longer seen.
  5. The economy of communion, if it wants to be faithful to its charism, must not only care for the victims, but build a system where there are ever fewer victims, where, possibly, there may no longer be any. As long as the economy still produces one victim and there is still a single discarded person, communion has not yet been realized; the celebration of universal fraternity is not full.
  6. We must work toward changing the rules of the game of the socio-economic system.
  7. May the ‘no’ to an economy that kills become a ‘yes’ to an economy that lets live, because it shares, includes the poor, uses profits to create communion.